Note: This essay was submitted as the final paper in Dr. Huskey's class, Introduction to Classical Studies (CL C 1113), in 2011.
The Benefits of Classical Study
By Steven Hudec
Perhaps it is the distance that makes Classical studies seem irrelevant. Can a world that existed across an ocean two thousand years ago have anything to say to us? With so many other areas of knowledge, some think we would surely be better off focusing our attentions elsewhere. Although many educated people plunge deeper into other categories, those who study Classics benefit greatly from them; the subject gives an excellent foundation for success in other areas. Classics should continually be studied because the field provides a terrific general knowledge of numerous subjects, helps develop skills that are beneficial in everyday life, and is outright enjoyable without being detrimental to society.
The Classical Age is a veritable wealth of information; the material, in fact, is so expansive that several fields of study are contained within Classical Studies––each one independently justifiable. History clearly goes hand-in-hand with Classics, and the generally accepted reason for studying history––so we will not repeat the mistakes of the past––holds true. The study of Ancient Greece and Rome is also inherently a study in anthropology, which undercuts the notion that the status quo is the only way; cultural differences force the questions of why we exist as we do and whether there is a better way of doing things. Psychology also is certainly at play in understanding the motivations of ancient figures, how great orators and Sophists could manipulate people, and the development of the gods the ancient people chose to worship, especially with figures like Dionysus who demonstrate the people’s need to reject daily responsibilities from time to time. Studying these ancient peoples means studying economics, art, architecture, philosophy, military strategy, politics, literature, natural sciences, and so on.
These fields are all tied to Classics in origin, in influence, or at least in example. In most cases, a thorough understanding of the subject matter requires a person to be familiar with the Classical origins within the field. It is no mistake that when given a topic to research, a typical student will find the origin of the topic; something would be wrong if we did not seek to understand the source of change. For example, all people who believe in democracy––in order to have evidence for their standpoint––should recognize what led Cleisthenes to establish an Athenian Assembly and why demes were an arbitrary division. However, even when the origin does not have its place in Ancient Rome or Greece, the influence those cultures have had necessitates Classical research. The Romans did not invent architecture, but their influence is seen today, especially in our government buildings. Ancient figures––both real and mythological––continue to show up in works of art, poetry, and movies. Additionally, the works of the ancient world survive today because they are the best of the best; they have withstood the test of time. Every politician should read Cicero’s speeches (and every citizen in order to know of what to be wary). Every military general should learn of the ingenuity and boldness of Hannibal and Scipio. Every writer should learn from the intricate sounds, pacing, and characterization of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Some fields, such as philosophy, find origin, influence, and great examples in Ancient Greece; it is impossible for a student to take an introductory philosophy course without hearing the name Aristotle. It is implicit that to neglect him would be to leave too large a gap in the education of young minds; in this way, even professors who are not proponents of Classical studies demonstrate their importance.
If Classical studies is a compilation of many other fields, why not eliminate this field? Why not focus on one of the fields it contains? In response, note that Classics is a holistic field in which––to borrow a line from Aristotle––the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is important for every person to have a working, general knowledge; if we desire well-rounded people, it is best to have a well-rounded field of study. Young people cannot be left ignorant in any one field, lest it cause harm to them or their nation. They should also be introduced to all these fields in order to get a sense for what they wish to pursue; for this purpose, Classics is more efficient than adding another several general education requirements. Furthermore, no field exists within a bubble. A focus on economics could neglect outside influences, but a study of the Roman economy in a historical context would allow an economist to see trends in relation to war, plague, or political change.
Beyond fields of study, Classics is beneficial in developing everyday skills. For example, consider the Latin language. Most people would judge few things to be more worthless than a dead language, but there are several advantages. We use English every day, and English––although Germanic––borrows heavily from Latin; approximately sixty percent of English words have their roots in Latin (Wheelock x). Therefore, studying Latin causes an improvement in English vocabulary. In fact, direct Latin phrases are used in law and science, perhaps with the intent of keeping a barrier between the learned and the unlearned. However, the technical jargon can be overcome by a student of Latin. In addition to vocabulary, studying Latin is helpful in understanding English grammar. Today, it is easy for someone to make it into college without being able to distinguish a subject and predicate; we rely on grammar being taught in foreign language classrooms instead of English classrooms. In this regard, any foreign language is helpful in forming better communicators, but Latin stands out. The complexity of having declensions, conjugations, and constructions makes translating Latin into a sort of logic puzzle. This critical thinking is beneficial to the everyday and is becoming scarcer in schools. As school becomes more memorization than thought, translating Latin forces a student to slow down and ask, “What is the speaker trying to say?” This gives practice in thought as well as communication––two of the most important skills in life. Also, students are instantly rewarded for their work with a thought or image from thousands of years ago. On a more emotional level, it seems a shame if Latin were no longer taught, and we had ancient documents from brilliant men, but nobody could read them in the original language.
Seeing that the study of Classics matters in relation to other areas of study and that even seemingly useless aspects provide daily advantages, consider that Classics should be studied because they are damned entertaining. Mucius Scaevola burns his own hand off. Cicero saves Rome from fire and iron. Cupid is pricked by his own arrow and falls tragically in love. Odysseus escapes a giant Cyclops by his cunning. Icarus flies too close to the sun. Brutus betrays Caesar. These are the events that have captured our imaginations; this is why there are boats, scientific projects, planets, record companies, military campaigns, software, and comic book characters with mythological names; there is a weighty sense of adventure and advancement in Classical studies, and they are immortalized in the written word, in sculpture, and in paint. People are happy to learn about ancient civilizations, and we are guaranteed the right to pursue that happiness, provided it does not interfere with others. Some opponents may say there is an interference; in their objections, they must point either to the cost of money or of time.
Financial cost is easy enough to counter. A great deal of those who study Classics go on to become successful lawyers, teachers, doctors, and more; they are certainly no drain on society. Further, with television (HBO’s Rome and at least three incarnations of Hercules), cinema (Spartacus, Troy, 300, Immortals), literature (“Leda and the Swan,” Percy Jackson and the Olympians), and games (Kingdom Hearts, God of War, Shadow of Rome), Classics is at least a multi-billion dollar industry. While Classics is incapable of funding itself, there is no doubt that it provides a much-needed boost to the economy through its former students and its role in the entertainment industry. As for the argument of time––the notion that people are wasting time with Classics when they could be doing something more useful––consider Dante, Milton, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Churchill, and several other figures recognizable by one name alone: all of them studied Classics, and their interest did not hamper them. On the contrary, they would probably argue that it was an important part of their lives; as Sir Winston Churchill writes in Roving Commission: My Early Life, “I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honor, and Greek as a treat” (Wheelock xxvi). Churchill esteems it so highly that he considers it a privilege.
Despite what Churchill states, nobody should be deprived of the knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome. It is a bringing together of fields of study and a foundation for further knowledge with a unique perspective. It is an exercise in critical thinking and communication. It is––given the entertainment industry and those who have studied Classics––popular, moving, and important. A person can only benefit from investing time in the Classical World.
- Wheelock, Frederic M., and Richard A. LaFleur. Wheelock's Latin. 6th ed. New York: HarperResource, 2005. Print.
- Wheelock, Martha, and Deborah Wheelock Taylor. Foreword. Wheelock’s Latin. By Frederic M. Wheelock and Richard A. LaFleur. 6th ed. New York: HarperResource, 2005. ix-xi.